I grew up in the kitchen with my mama and grandmas and aunties. The kitchen always held a centrifugal force, drawing our family together. The kitchen was the place where the stories and light unfolded.
In the kitchen, my Grandma Cora taught me to roll lumpia. I can still smell the familiar blend of ginger, garlic and soy sauce dancing through the air. She showed me how to spoon the filling and fold up the sides, then roll and tuck. Her fingers used to fly.
I can still see her tilting her head back and giggling like a school girl as she unfurled her stories of growing up an island girl and how she met my grandpa. She sparked my curiosity with her tidbits of traveling the world.
In the kitchen, Grandma taught me to be free. She taught me to be creative and explore.
She also taught me to cherish my Asian Pacific heritage. Our people are a true mix of cultures. Grandma was proud of her ethnic mosaic of Filipino, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and other cultures. Despite some of the difficult history the Philippines has endured, Grandma saw the blending of people groups as a gift.
When I was a little girl, I didn’t have books that depicted characters like me. I was an avid reader, often lost somewhere in Narnia or the pages of a picture book about Mexican or African American children. Although these books did not provide the mirror I deeply longed for, they encouraged my spirit and ignited my imagination.
As a young mother and writer, I wanted to capture my grandma’s spirit and record her recipes for my children. I wanted a book that celebrated Filipino-American culture, a book that my girls could see themselves in. I also wanted to invite others who were not as familiar with our culture into a new adventure. That’s how my children’s book, Cora Cooks Pancit, was birthed.
The book tells the story of a Filipino-American girl who is the youngest in a big family. She ventures into the kitchen one day to cook with her mama. As they cook a traditional Filipino noodle dish together, Cora learns about her family history and legacy.
Although the book is fiction, I do talk a bit about the Filipino farmworkers who worked in the fields in California. My dad still tells me stories of when his family moved to the mainland. He and many of his cousins spent hot summer days picking strawberries in the fields. This is how many of them put themselves through college.
Food and books are some of the natural ways we all can explore and enter into cultural experiences. As a mother, I spend a lot of time reading books and cooking with my three daughters. This time is sacred because it helps us discover who we are and how to love all of God’s people created in His image.
Whenever I catch a whiff of rice in the cooker or vegetables sautéing, I think of my grandma. I imagine her cooking up Filipino feasts in Heaven for all the angels and friends. I can hear her singing while she swirls the noodles in the pot. She had a gift of hospitality. She could stretch one meal to feed a whole village, and no one ever went away hungry. I hope I can teach my daughters to welcome all people to our table just like Grandma did.
* This essay was originally published at MOPS.org.